Workers at the centre of two disputes that go to the heart of Labour’s anti-union, pro-boss policies came together on a confident, militant protest through Bristol on Friday of last week.
A delegation of sacked Gate Gourmet workers joined about 1,000 other people on a protest demanding the reinstatement of sacked Rolls Royce convenor Jerry Hicks and in support of 94 Amicus union members in the company’s Bristol test area who have been on indefinite strike for three weeks.
There were loud cheers as the Gate Gourmet workers entered the rally chanting “Shame on Gate Gourmet, shame on Rolls Royce” in Punjabi and “The workers united will never be defeated”.
Both struggles are focusing the frustration among trade unionists that eight and a half years into a Labour government Thatcherite restrictions on the unions remain and employment law overwhelmingly favours the employers.
The T&G union, which represents Gate Gourmet workers, is to table an emergency resolution at the TUC conference next week.
It calls for unofficial action to be legal when it is provoked by a company, agency workers to be employed on the same rates as full timers, and for solidarity action such as the stoppage by BA workers in support of Gate Gourmet staff to be legalised.
Rolls Royce management cited unofficial action by test area workers as grounds for sacking their convenor, Jerry.
The demand for a change in the law is striking a chord with many senior union officials. Gerry Bartlett, deputy general secretary of the NASUWT teachers’ union, was on the Bristol march.
He said, “Because of the Labour government’s failure to repeal the Tory anti-union legislation, we are increasingly having difficulties in securing facility time from some employers.
“We identify with Jerry’s fight and are committed to the campaign.”
Ian Waddel, the Amicus national officer for aerospace, told the rally, “The seeds of change are being sown across the country because of this dispute.
“This is wider than Bristol, wider than Amicus—this is about the whole union movement.
“We are in this dispute because workers at Rolls are prevented from exercising their democratic rights to walk out in support of colleagues.
“In this third term of a Labour government we have to undo the anti-union laws that were brought in under Margaret Thatcher.
“This demonstration is a glowing endorsement of the battle we are fighting. The hundreds here represent the millions across the country.”
There were significant delegations from Amicus on the march and over 40 union banners, including the national banners of NASUWT, the civil service workers’ PCS and railworkers’ TSSA.
Trevor Hall, a full time officer for the T&G in Gloucester, said, “I’ve suffered the same fate as Jerry, being sacked as a convenor.
“Thirty years ago the union movement meant something as a progressive force in society. Then came Thatcherism and we have the laws hailing from that era.
“Young people today are interested in trade unionism if it is seen to make a difference. What the movement needs is a victory, a victory here and at Gate Gourmet.”
Simon Byrne, a student from Wimbledon College, south London, travelled on an Amicus-organised coach to join the demonstration.
He said, “This is the first time I’ve been on something like this, though I’ve been to anti-war events.
“It’s great to see the determination and people coming together. We need the unions to win, not just for workers today, but for those of us who will need protection from the employers when we join the workforce.”
Rolls Royce’s manoeuvres have brought increased determination and a sharp reaction from its workers.
Not for sale
Jerry told the demonstration, to cheers, “We were told two days ago that Rolls has doubled the money it is offering for me to walk away and not darken its door again.
“It is now offering £100,000. But our answer is twice as loud –‘Jerry can’t be bought and the union is not for sale’.”
He added that the fight provided “a platform for all those fabulous policies for the repeal of the anti-union laws to be turned into a serious campaign”—beginning at next week’s TUC.
A mass meeting of the rest of the 1,000 manual workers at the Bristol factory on Thursday of this week was to discuss issuing management with seven days notice of a ballot for strike action, which could take place in early October.
There is a weekly levy of union members at Rolls’s other British plants and mass meetings there have heard the case for ballots to spread the strike if management do not reinstate Jerry.
Neil Sheehan, a delegate to Amicus’s aerospace and shipbuilding committee, told the protest, “We must organise across the unions to defend shop stewards, the lifeblood of the movement.
“Amicus’s aerospace and shipbuilding committee met ten days after the sacking and pledged support. We must honour those pledges.”
His delegation from the north west of England was one of several to hand over £1,000 to the strike fund. The committee was discussing further support as Socialist Worker went to press.
The battles at Rolls and Gate Gourmet are turning workers’ rights and the anti-union laws into a central political issue and are sharpening tensions between the unions and Labour.
The same is true in the fight against victimisation of two leading Unison union activists in Sefton, Merseyside, who face the sack for speaking out against council house privatisation.
“The political campaign to scrap the anti-worker laws will be enormously strengthened by winning these disputes,” says Jerry. “That means being prepared to take hard-hitting industrial action.
“It is support and solidarity that will win this. That means the collections, the demonstrations, linking up across unions and extending the action.”
The deadline for workers at Gate Gourmet to express an interest in redundancy was extended to Thursday of this week. But the company was still saying it would refuse to take back up to 200 workers it considers “troublemakers”.
“That is just not acceptable,” said Mrs Atwal, a shop steward and part of the Gate Gourmet delegation on the Bristol march.
“We are determined to fight for justice and for reinstatement.”
The company’s insults had hardened the mood among many Gate Gourmet workers at the start of this week.
“All of those who want to should be back,” said one. “We should have a national demonstration, protests at Downing Street and further action in the airport.”
For more on Gate Gourmet, see Put us at centre of this battle
For more on Sefton, see Strike to defend key union activists in Sefton
For Gate Gourmet go to www.sackedbygategourmet.org.uk
Collect at work. Make cheques payable to “AEU Stewards Body—Test Area” and send to 10 York Road, Montpelier, Bristol BS6 5QE